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S.A. Bent, comp. Familiar Short Sayings of Great Men. 1887.


  • [Bernard le Bavier-Fontenelle, a celebrated French author; born at Rouen, Feb. 11, 1657; was a nephew of Corneille; published a “Discourse on the Plurality of Worlds,” 1686; member of the Academy; perpetual secretary of the Academy of Sciences, 1699; died January, 1757, just failing to complete his one-hundredth year.]
  • If I held my hand full of truths, I should be careful how I opened it (Si je tenais toutes les vérités dans ma main, je me donnerai bien de garde de l’ouvrir aux hommes).

  • An expression common to many thinkers. Voltaire wrote to Cardinal de Bernis, April 23, 1764: “There are truths which are not for all men, nor for all times” (Il y a des vérités qui ne sont pas pour tous les hommes et pour tous les temps); and in a letter to the Countess de Barcewitz, Dec. 24, 1761, “Truths are fruits which should only be plucked when quite ripe” (qui ne doivent être cueillis que bien mûrs). The remark of Lessing is better known: “If God should hold enclosed in his right hand all truth, and in his left hand only the ever-active impulse after truth (den einzigen immer regen Trieb nach Wahrheit), although with the condition that I must always and forever err, I would with humility turn to his left hand, and say, ‘Father, give me this: pure truth is for thee alone.’”—Anti-Götze. Mme. du Deffand was of opinion that “all truths are not to be spoken, nevertheless it is always good to hear them;” which is but another form of the remark of Demosthenes to the Athenians: “My counsels to you are of that nature that they are sometimes not good for me to give, but are always good for you to follow.”
  • Every thing is possible: everybody is right.

  • His two favorite maxims, indicating the paradoxical spirit which characterized him.
  • When he presented his “Essay on the Geometry of the Infinite” to the Regent in 1727, he remarked, “Here is a book which only eight men in France are capable of understanding, and the author is not one of that number.”
  • To a lady who asked, on her arrival in Paris, what the chair in the Academy was, of which she heard so much; “It is a couch,” replied Fontenelle, “where wit sleeps” (C’est un lit de repos où le bel esprit sommeille).
  • There are three things I have always loved, and never understood,—painting, music, and woman.

  • When told by a newly married friend that his wife was witty and amiable, Fontenelle asked, “Is she pretty? That is all women are obliged to be.” (Est-elle jolie? Une femme n’est obligée qu’à cela.)
  • He was told by a physician that coffee was a slow poison; to which he replied, “Doctor, I have been of your opinion for the eighty years that I have taken it” (je le crois comme vous, voilà quatre-vingts ans que j’en prends).
  • When ninety years old, passing before Mme. Helvétius at dinner, she said to him, “What am I to think of your gallantry? You pass before me without looking at me!” To which Fontenelle replied, “Madame, if I had looked at you, I should never have passed!” (Si je vous eusse regardée je n’aurais point passé!)
  • A friend called upon him who was fond of asparagus cooked with butter, while Fontenelle preferred it with oil. However, to please his guest, half of it should be prepared with butter, and the original order was countermanded accordingly. While they were talking, the friend, a bon-vivant abbé, fell in a fit of apoplexy; whereupon Fontenelle, without a thought of the sufferer, rushed to the stairs, and called out to the cook, “The whole with oil, as at first!” (A story invented by Voltaire.)
  • Fontenelle’s last words were: “I do not suffer, my friends: but I feel a certain difficulty of existing” (Je ne souffre pas, mes amis, mais je sens une certaine difficulté d’être). He said that it was time for him to go, because he was “beginning to see things as they are” (je commence à voir les choses telles qu’elles sont). Diderot said of him when, in his last days, his wit (esprit) only occasionally flashed forth, “’Tis an old château which spirits revisit” (C’est un vieux château où il revient des esprits).